Our biggest fear that the burglars had stolen Jill's lap top, which would be like stealing her brain. I prayed that it would be safe, and it was! Before leaving, she had piled papers on top of her computer and the burglars didn't think to look under them. Instead they stole every electronic device that they could find--a total of 6 old computers, a Bose speaker, a Kindle, and also a silver communion chalice that belonged to my wife Kathleen of blessed memory.
That was the biggest lost for me, since the chalice is a keepsake and irreplaceable.
When we told people about our loss, there was an outpouring of sympathy from friends and neighbors and family that touched us deeply. Our next-door neighbor even brought us some watermelon to comfort us. Others offered help. We feel blessed and grateful to have such loving friends!
The emotional shock was drawn out by the fact that it took almost all weekend to sort through the chaos left behind by the burglars--closets, wardrobes, and desks drawers opened, clothing and jewelry and other possessions scattered over the floor.
As I sorted through the stuff, I also reflected on what my Christian and Quaker faith has taught me. People are more important than stuff. It is much more grievous for a thief to lose his or her integrity by stealing than it is for a homeowner to lose some possessions due to theft.
Since the most precious possession I lost was my wife's silver chalice, I asked myself: how would Kathleen want me to respond? What would Jesus do?
The silver chalice reminded me of the story in Les Miserables when Jean Valjean escaped from prison (where he was serving time for stealing bread) and was taken in by kind and hospitable priest. Early in the morning, Jean Valjean left the priest's home and took with him some silver candlesticks.
Later that day, he was apprehended by the police who took him back to the priest's home. They asked if Jean Valjean had stolen the candlesticks.
"Oh no," replied the priest. "I gave them to him. He needed them more than I did."
The priest then told Valjean: "Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man. Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good."
This act of forgiveness so touched Jean Valjean that his life was forever transformed.
That's what I hope and pray for those who stole Kathleen's chalice.
This is not the first time that I have had something precious stolen. Twenty years ago, when I was coordinating a youth program for Quaker youth, the van I had purchased for this job was stolen while I was buying flowers at Home Depot in Pico Rivera. This happened on a Sunday while I was on my way from church to a Bible study. I was "filled with the Spirit," and somehow the van didn't seem very important. The security guard who I was talking to was surprised by my lack of concern for the van. "I am more concerned about those who stole the van," I told him. "They need prayer."
The security guard, a young Latino man, was so touched by my response he shared with me his story, how he had been beaten by gang members in this very lot, and almost died. He was determined to seek revenge, but after several months realized the futility of vengeance and decided instead to become a police officer. He was married, taken classes in college and making good progress in his life. I congratulated him for making a wise decision.
The Quaker youth were also surprised when I told them to hold in the Light those who stole the van. They were young people like themselves who had lost their way.
The van was eventually found, trashed but still drivable, and kids who stole it were caught. I was asked what restitution I wanted and I said, all I wanted was to talk to them and let them know how precious they are and how I hoped they would see that and turn their lives around. I was never given that opportunity, but I hope that somehow they got the message.
The early church leaders recognized that people were more important than things, even things that belonged to the church.
One of Thomas Merton's favorite stories of the early church concerned some monks whose abbot went on a trip and left them in charge of the monastery. While the abbot was gone, burglars came and stole precious religious items. The monks were so outraged they went out and captured the burglars and brought them to justice. When the abbot returned, they proudly told him what they had done.
"You did this and still call yourselves followers of Christ?" replied the abbot. "Jesus came to bring release to the captives, not put them in jail."
The consciences of the monks were so smitten that they stole out of the monastery in the middle of night, broke into the jail, and released all the thieves!
I take these teachings to heart as I think about those who broke into our home. Yes, it was painful for us--a violation that will take time to heal. But what I yearn for most is restorative justice--a chance to connect with the offenders and find a way to restore the broken relationships caused by theft.
This is how my Quaker/Christian faith teaches me to respond.